For MLA Jobs Market, Cautious Optimism

Last week the Modern Language Association released its report on the 2011-12 Job Information List, the clearinghouse for full-time academic job advertisements in English and foreign languages. The annual report compares the number of job openings, their rank, and location with previous years’ job markets.

Hidden in the data is a big surprise. Compared with other national labor markets for highly educated professionals, the academic job market for English and foreign languages is doing quite well. If you are on the market this year, you have good reasons to be optimistic.

Heavy on data, light on interpretation, this year’s MLA report nevertheless paints an overly dour picture of the job market. The report uses the economic-bubble year of 2007-8 as the benchmark for comparisons. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of job openings in English plummeted by 39.8 percent. But everybody agrees in retrospect that 2007 marked the limit of an unsustainable bubble in the national economy, hardly a norm by which to set benchmarks. If the market were to quickly achieve those levels again, I would start thinking about selling my house and pulling out of the stock market.

The situation improves if we find our benchmark after the technology bubble burst in 2002, by blending the job openings from 2003-6. Compared with that calmer norm, the jobs market last year was down by about 26 percent—still a major downturn, but not nearly as dismal as the MLA report suggests. As James F. English has argued about college English-major enrollments (most recently in The Chronicle Review), picking bubbles as benchmarks against which to measure decline can distort the real prospects for the field and the challenges we face.

While the academic jobs market can seem to mirror larger economic trends, there are substantial differences. Even without reframing the data, the MLA jobs market outperformed the national labor market in the depths of the crisis. From the hiring peak of the bubble in 2007 to the nadir of the economic downturn in 2009, nationwide job openings dropped by 50 percent, 10 percentage points more than MLA jobs. (See Chart 2 of “Job Openings and Employment,” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

The other moderately good news is that over the past two years, MLA job openings have increased by 12.3 percent from their low point in 2009-10. However, this growth rate is sluggish compared with some other national economic sectors, and lags behind the 28.6-percent hike in job openings across the national labor market since June 2010, roughly the trough of the downturn (Bureau of Labor Statistics July 2011 and July 2012 “Job Openings and Labor Turnover” reports).

Compared with the 14.5-percent increase in job openings in the broader “education and health services” sector from June 2011 to July 2012 alone (37.6 percent since June 2010), MLA jobs still have a lot of catching up to do. By contrast, last year’s job openings in the “professional and business services” sector, most of which required a bachelor’s degree or higher, declined by 2.5 percent. So at least in terms of job openings, the MLA job market took less of a hit in the crisis and seems to be recovering more slowly than the national average, but is doing better than some sectors.

But the moderate good news these data represent is hard to feel on the ground, among the A.B.D.’s and newly minted Ph.D.’s who scour the Job Information List and the Academic Jobs Wiki. Today’s job seekers cannot but internalize the market’s own insecurity, reflected in colleges’ and universities’ cautious delay of job postings. For three years running, more than half of the jobs advertised in a given year were posted after the MLA convention, the field’s major conference where once upon a time nearly all interviewing for jobs took place.

Another source of anxiety for job seekers is the high visibility of failure and postponed expectations. According to Rasmussen Reports, 77 percent of Americans in February knew somebody out of work and looking for a job. That number among graduate students is 100 percent, and most job-seeking recent Ph.D.’s know at least a dozen other colleagues who are looking for jobs.

Beyond personal acquaintance, many job seekers watch the market barometer of the Academic Jobs Wiki, which tracks the number of (self-reporting) candidates in each field. The numbers here can be brutally discouraging. A job posting last year for “British, Transatlantic, or Anglophone Literature, early modern to modernism” reportedly received more than 650 applications.

But those shock-stats can loom too large in the job-seeking psyche. While the odds vary significantly by subfield, most current academic job seekers have better prospects than many of their fellow Americans. In my subfield of medieval English literature, last year there were about 100 applicants (based on a Wiki report of 93 applicants for a position at Fordham University, Manhattan campus) for 41 job openings. That ratio of 2.4 job seekers for every job is excellent by national standards, where the ratio in July of this year was 3.5, down from a recession peak of 6.2, again according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (see Chart 1).

While I still do not envy the job-seeking Modernist who does not do transatlantic comparative work, I’d rather be a newly minted Ph.D. in almost any modern-languages field than an out-of-work “professional and business services” provider.

Of course, long-term trends should lead us to expect the modern-languages jobs recovery to be only partial, continuing the institutional shift away from full-time and tenure-stream hiring toward contingent labor. But it could be worse, and there are good reasons to be cautiously optimistic—especially if you are on the job market.

Ryan McDermott is an assistant professor of English and chair of the department’s graduate placement and professional-development committee at the University of Pittsburgh.

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